Dumbing Down the Bible or Readable Accuracy?

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Wayne Leman at Better Bibles Blog has a good response to the common claim that Bibles should shoot for unreadability because Bibles have in the past helped foster literacy. (For a real example of this argument, see the comments on this post.) The key idea is that our translations should imitate how the original books of the Bible were written, rather than imitating how English translators have historically translated, as if the latter model is better than the scriptural one.

10 Comments

Nice summary, Jeremy. Did you intend the word "unreadability" in the first sentence?

Yes. That's what in effect they're arguing. They wouldn't put it that way, but sometimes it's appropriate to present your opponent's views in ways they wouldn't express them.

I thing that we shouldn't ever use one translation. There will be different purposes for different occasions. If I am doing study, using the NAS or NRSV would be better because they are "truer" to the original Greek and Hebrew. But if I am looking for readibility or a translation that is good for reading aloud, something like the Message that is translated with the original intention in mind, if not the strict structure or word choice. Both can be equally important I think.

I've been thinking a lot about translation recently (having just taken a class where I did it constantly) and I have to agree that our translations should reflect how the originals were written. The big question in my mind is how far to take this. With respect to the issues that Wayne Leman is arguing about, I totally agree with him. But then you start getting into finer grained translation issues.

For example, some authors wrote in a more formal style than others. Should those writings sound more formal in English at the possible expense of their readability? I'm inclined to say yes, though I'm not at all certain.

What about particular paragraphs, sentences, or phrases? Some of them are written (as far as I can tell) in very awkward Hebrew or Greek even though the surrounding paragraphs/sentences/phrases are very smooth. Or if not awkward, then certainly peculiar. Should our English translations reflect that? That would result in some jarring phrases/sentences in otherwise smooth passages. I'm inclined to say no on this one. However, I can't find a really good principle as to why I'm saying no on this one, but yes to the previous one.

What do you guys think?

I think we should translate Paul's extremely long sentences as extremely long sentences in English, because that tells us more about how Paul wrote. This is one place I disagree with Wayne. He thinks we should write in good literary style in English, but I think there are times when a more accurate translation preserves something of the original only by making it bad English style.

I can see your point, Jeremy - I've never thought of it that way before.

However, which is more important - to convey the critical concepts and ideas of the passage, or the manner in which they were written? In the case of the Bible, I would have to say that who cares if Paul was long-winded - tell me clearly what he said.

I've heard that Peter's Greek was bad - that 1 Peter was likely dictated by Peter and written by a more well-educated guy, and the 2 Peter was written by Peter (forgive me if I have them backwards). If 2 Peter has a bunch of grammatical errors, should the English translation of 2 Peter be filled with errors as well?

What should a translator do when the Hebrew (or the Greek or Aramaic) is not always clear? There are many passages whose meanings in the original languages are unclear. They are open to more than one interpretation. Should the English translation strive for this double meaning? Should the translator choose one and leave the other(s) as a footnote? How do you choose which meaning?

And what about the puns and wordplay in Hebrew? Those impart meaning too, but are almost impossible to translate in English. They do, however, tie sections of the Bible together, create connections and change the way one views the text. What if you named the first humans Earthling and Life? That would be a more accurate tranlation than "Adam & Eve", and yet it detaches the reader from the long tradition and familiarity of other translations.

I have several different translations for different purposes, but the best book I have for meaning (in English) is Richard Friedman's Torah commentary. If only it covered more than 5 books!


There will always be a tension between the original greek and the original author's intention AND contemporary translations (whether that be the 14th century KJV or the 20th/21st NIV). I taught Greek at a Christian college for five years, along with exegetical methods, and I stressed that an english translation should reflect, as best as possible, the original intention of the greek and its use by the original author--so I'd agree that the flip side is worth considering as well, namely that a translation of the original should not be primarily one that considers how english works as language at the expense of how greek works as a language. This tension and multiple translations will exist if for any other reason that we will always be struggling with this two-sided coin: should the english version reflect how the modern reader reads english or how the original author used his knowledge of the Greek language. All good translations have a measure of usefulness, they are adequate for study, not sufficient. I content we are still in need of those in the pastoral vocation to be greek (and dare I say, hebrew) literate and exegetically proficient in order to guard the text and its content for suture generations.

Joe, my major point is that there are lots of things that we leave out when we translate. Other things being equal, each one of these things would ideally come out in translation. Other things aren't always equal. Sometimes to get one of them across you'll have to leave out other things, and then you have to make a decision about which thing is more important.

You might have a specific goal of translating to get all the metaphors, imagery, parallelism, and puns as best as you can, sacrificing accuracy of content. As long as it's clear that you're doing that, I'm ok with it, and I wouldn't encourage anyone to use that kind of translation as a primary translation, but I think it could be a very valuable reference.

Talmida, your question gets at one smaller example of the same general problem with translation. Sometimes we can translate an ambiguous expression with an expression that's ambiguous in English. Other things being equal, we should seek to do that when we can. Sometimes other factors interfere. Sometimes we sacrifice aspects of the form of the original when we do that, and sometimes those formal elements are a key to the meaning of other parts of the passage. We have to figure out which element we want to preserve to gain the most accurate presentation of what the text is saying. I can see it going either way, depending on the particular circumstances.

Other times you'll discover that you can't keep the ambiguity at all. There's no English rendering that really captures both possibilities that the Greek (or whatever other language) will allow. It's at such points that the translator needs to do some serious homework, reading the scholarship on the passage, including the best commentaries and other resources to see what the arguments for each rendering might be. They will then need to decide which arguments seem best to them and render the translation accordingly, perhaps leaving the alternative rendering in a footnote.

Chip, I agree with everything you say except the last sentence. I don't think you need to know a lot of Greek and Hebrew, as long as you have good resources that allow you to profit from those who do have good Greek and Hebrew knowledge, i.e. commentaries, English-based language tools that tell you what word is being used in what verses, etc. (Also, I don't believe in a pastoral vocation, at least as most people use the term, but that's another story. Those who teach should seek to develop in their understanding of these matters.)

I get it, Jeremy - thanks. I'm a newbie in all things translation, so I'm considering these points for the first time. It's pretty interesting!

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